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Tracing the Line

London, UK

From vases that come with their own accessories to linear chairs, French designers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec's latest output is rooted in draughtsmanship

Ronan Bouroullec
Vases Découpage for Vitra

“I am liking this period a lot,” says Ronan Bouroullec about the Covid-19 confinement that, to varying degrees, most of Europe is currently experiencing. “All the team is working from home. We’re not doing so much on Skype or Zoom; more really concentrating, like a monk, to really think about projects.” That, and some more artistic pursuits: “It’s been quite productive for drawing – I think I have done around 100 big-scale drawings.”

Drawings were the starting point for Ronan and his brother Erwan Bouroullec’s latest launch for Vitra, a collection of ceramic vases that consist of a perfect cylinder accessorised by various amorphous shapes that slot on to the side or sit inside. These Vases Découpage, as they’ve been christened, “started as research in the studio, not with the aim of it being a Vitra product,” says Ronan Bouroullec. The experimentation then moved to a Burgundy ceramics factory, where “we did almost 50 different designs, always with the same principle: a very precise cylinder, with a different piece, cut very quickly by hand, placed upon it” (“decoupage” translates as “cut-out”).

“Some pieces we found to be very beautiful because of this intersection, so we produced them exactly as is, with the imperfection exactly moulded and reproduced for each vase,” he continues. “There’s something very raw about it. I think it’s important to consider that in industrial design: controlled imprecision, something a bit more sensual.”

There’s something very raw about it. I think it’s important to consider that in industrial design: controlled imprecision, something a bit more sensual

Vitra showed these unique, experimental pieces (pictured above) in Milan in 2019, and, for 2020, has put three designs (pictured top) into larger-scale production. The vases’ modular nature – you can couple and de-couple their various elements at whim – is a recurring theme of the brothers’ work, across many scales. Over a couple of decades working with Vitra, for example, they have produced work such as Algue, a coral-shaped piece of plastic that snaps together to form larger organic-looking swathes that can be used as curtains, room dividers or wall decoration (the effect is exactly the “controlled imprecision” that Bouroullec mentions). Back in 2002 they created Joyn, an office desk system with a large table that can be flexibly subdivided, with central cable management: sounds pretty standard now, but in the early noughties it was well ahead of its time, tackling the balance between having communal and more private space within a single working area (and as a testament to its foresightedness, it’s still in production).

Bouroullec says that the Vases Découpage are unusual for being some of their more artistic output, while also being mass produced. “There are industrial products in one field, then gallery pieces,” is his observation, talking about the design world at large. “There is nothing in between, done with beautiful materials by an interesting small company that can produce something in quantity. These vases are like a test.” His own artwork, distinct from the work he produces with his brother, is similarly finding a broader audience though The Wrong Shop, which sells limited-edition prints and non-edition posters in his precise, looping style.

Rope Chair for Artek

The brothers’ recent work for Finnish design company Artek, a coat hook and a chair called Rope, sit more comfortably in the industrial design category, but are no less thoughtful and refined for it. The chair, launched at the Stockholm Furniture & Light Fair in February 2020, is deceptively simple-looking – “so simple it’s almost nothing,” says Bouroullec. “A cord, a tube and a piece of wood.” Its linear outline is like a three-dimensional drawing, with a rope feeding through the tubular steel frame, emerging to create the arms and back, which yield a little to the user’s posture. Achieving the correct strength and tension of each component was an engineering challenge.

Bouroullec says he feels a natural affinity with Finnish design. The brothers have worked with ceramics and glass company Iittala for more than two decades (launching another line of ceramic vases, pictured below, in Stockholm at the same time) and well as Artek, founded by designer and architect Alvar Aalto in 1935. As a student, growing up in the French countryside, Bouroullec recalls that “someone gave me a book about Alvar Aalto, and it showed that you could design everything down to a door handle. I felt very touched by the fact that there was this incredible atmospheric aspect, the sensuality of it, the fact that it wasn’t brutal modernism.”

Ruutu ceramic vases for Iittala
I like that the taxi driver will drink his coffee from an Iittala cup in the morning and schoolchildren sit on Artek stools. In Finland, this idea of modernity isn’t exclusive, it’s shared by everyone

In Finland, he says, “there is a real understanding of what makes the whole environment… the light, the handles, the carpet, everything. I’ve always been really interested in this.” He also appreciates the democratic nature of design there: “What I find interesting about Artek and Iittala is that their products are used by everyone. I like that the taxi driver will drink his coffee from an Iittala cup in the morning and schoolchildren sit on Artek stools. This idea of modernity isn’t exclusive, it’s shared by everyone. This is why I like working with them.”

With trade shows on hiatus for now – instead of showing its new launches in Milan, Vitra built the same installations it was planning at its Weil am Rhein campus in Germany – Ronan Bouroullec, like many of us, hopes that stepping off life’s treadmill will have a positive effect, recharging the batteries and bringing new perspectives. “I hope it will be a prolific thing, more in the sense of having a bit of time to not think too much,” he says. “Just to clear my messy brain a bit.”